American Ultra (2015)

american_ultra

“The Hit is On” or “Everyone’s Getting Smoked”

Directed by Nima Nourizadeh
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton, Topher Grace and Walton Goggins

Mike Howell (Eisenberg) is a deadbeat slacker with no drive, living in Liman, Virginia with his girlfriend Phoebe (Stewart) and unable to leave town due to crippling panic attacks. He is also, although he doesn’t know it, a government trained assassin and the only surviving subject of Project Wise Man.

When the former head of Wise Man, Victoria Lasseter (Britton) learns that her successor Yates (Grace) plans to inaugurate his Tough Guy programme by eliminating Howell, she hurriedly activates him so that he can protect himself, but Howell is too stoned to respond to his codes, his Wise Man programming only kicking in in times of direct threat and allowing him to kill the Tough Guy assassins sent to ‘neutralise’ him.

Howell is devastated to learn that Phoebe was originally his handler, placed to assimilate him into the town, but when she is captured he will stop at nothing to save her. Meanwhile, Lasseter and Yates struggle for the loyalty of Pete (Tony Hale), their nice, gay assistant and frankly the real hero of the piece, to secure their own survival and the fate of Mike Howell.

What’s wrong with it?

To a certain extent, the movie hinges on you caring what happens to Mike, and each time he kills someone you care a little less, especially when the film turns around and reveals that the Tough Guy assets are basically brainwashed mental patients. They’re also not very good, so the whole thing is a little bit Steven Seagal. My hero for the movie was Pete, being practically the only character to be faced with a real moral dilemma.

The clash between the Mike and the Tough Guy assets results in the deaths of one or two soldiers, sixteen Tough Guys and seven civilians, but the visible population of Liman, Virginia appears to be only about a dozen people, including the seven dead (three drug dealers and four cops) Mike, Phoebe and a couple of customers at the Cash & Carry. Other than that it’s a ghost town.

Towards the end of the film, Mike chooses not to kill Laugher (Goggins), realising that they were both manipulated by the government in the same way. Aaand then he goes to work for the CIA and seems happy as Larry murdering Triad gangsters with a dustpan. This is symptomatic of a fairly common dissonance where a movie kind of wants to deplore violence, but just finds it too cool.

What’s right with it?

Eisenberg and Stewart are surprisingly likable as the fake couple, and their musings on the car and the tree are actually rather touching.

The action scenes are beautifully choreographed. It’s some of the best set-fu I’ve seen since Shoot ‘Em Up, and whatever else I may say about American Ultra, it’s far less unpleasant than Shoot ‘Em Up.

How bad is it really?

American Ultra does for action/conspiracy thrillers as John Dies at the End did for cosmic horror, except perhaps that the straight action/conspiracy elements in American Ultra don’t quite come together. Or perhaps that not such a difference and I’m just projecting from the book in the case of John Dies at the End and its cosmic horror.

I don’t think it works entirely – the villains are too ineffectual and the heroes not quite likable enough for the premise – but it’s not terrible and is an okay way to kill an afternoon.

Best bit (if such there is)?

  • Pete calls the boss, Krueger (Bill Pullman), to alert him to the chaos. Krueger answers the secure phone and a serious-sounding, digitally anonymised voice begins: “Umm… Sir…”
  • Alternatively, surrounded by cops Mike finally finds the moment to propose and is accepted. They go to kiss and Mike gets tased, as does Phoebe when she protests.

What’s up with…?

  • Astro Ape and Chip the Brick? Were there parallels in there? Was Phoebe the treacherous dog? If that’s the case then who was Chip? Am I reading too much into this?

Ratings

Production values – The action is well done and the filming is pretty much all location shots and practical effects. It could stand to have a few more colours, but maybe that’s just Virginia. 7
Dialogue and performances – It felt as though the dialogue really needed to crackle a little more, but that certainly isn’t the fault of the actors. Even K-Stew was pretty good, perhaps because she never had to give a rousing speech. 9
Plot and execution – The plot is simple, but the lack of civilian population means that the collateral damage stakes are limited and partly as a result the film has little or no moral dimension. This in turn makes it kind of hard to care about the outcome. 12
Randomness – The plotting is tight; there is very little that feels extraneous, except maybe for the extended animated fight scene at the end. 9
Waste of potential – I felt as if there was a better, sparkier film lurking just below the surface of this one, or possibly a better, weightier film. 9

Overall 46%

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